Desert Fathers Dispatch
Every mainstream should have an antithesis. This is not to be combative or dismissive to the denomination that left. Had it not been for the African-American Baptist Church, I probably would have never been born, much less born again. I think the black church of the various denominations and non-denominations are able to lead souls to salvation as the final Judge looks beyond nation, race, and other factors we consider important in the world. Even though the Orthodox Church maintains the doctrine handed down by Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church Fathers; God looks at the heart of people and decides who will enter paradise and who will be condemned.
Yet, every mainstream needs an antithesis to reach the unreachable, refresh the burned out, and cause those who are complacent to rethink where they are and what they believe. In music, punk and hip-hop were the underground movements that challenged the rock and r&b industries. Were it not for these movements, all forms of American music (I dare say even country, jazz, and others) would have lost the cutting edge of creativity that encouraged kids to pick up guitars and mics rather than guns and needles. Rock would have become an empty shell of its self and reduced to background music for elevators. R&B would have continued as a disco ball to be kicked around by anyone who wanted to make a quick hit for the money. Thank God for bands like the Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, and the Clash. Praise Jesus for Kool Herc, Afrika Bamattaa, and Grand Master Flash.
I believe the mainstream of African-American Christianity (American Christianity in general, for that matter) has become way too comfortable and predictable. Many of us, especially in rural and small town areas, go to the churches our families have always gone to. Those in urban and suburban areas tend to flock to wherever our friends go, whatever congregation has the ministries that meet the needs of our family, or whoever’s preaching and teaching “feeds” our souls. The churches boast great singing, a powerful sermons, and fellowship with other believers. Compared to the cesspool of modern society, the mainstream of the black church is a great place to be.
But, one property of a flowing river is that it cuts through and erodes the banks and goes to new territory. If a body of water is not flowing, there is the risk of stagnation. While winds and rains may offer refreshment to a pond that doesn’t flow, it is still going to lose oxygen and gain no further places to run. I mean no one any insult. But, in some ways, this is where the modern African-American church is today. It is bordered in the same circle with no new flow.
Almost every choir is singing the latest gospel hit from the radio. Nearly every preacher is using the same catch phrases in sermons to motivate (if not pressure) congregations to stand up and shout. As soon as a few of the more well known ministers start a new trend, the old ones are quickly abandoned as “God has shifted us in a new direction.” Some choir directors and pastors have even been guilty of bringing so much of the secular world into worship that some in the community can’t tell the difference between the church and the club (sometimes the same people attend both). There are some ponds that are healthy. There were some talented rock and r&b musicians. And there are some modern churches that are full of the grace of God. But, without the flowing stream, without the punk and rap, without some sort of alternative to what is very familiar and has over-saturated the church, I am afraid it will grow stagnant and die.
In punk, guitarist went back to the simple three chords and made music that nearly anyone could play. DJ’s searched for any old record of any genre for the “break beats” to keep the party going. When a stream cuts through a bank and exposes more land to new waters, both aquatic and terrestrial life benefits. I believe more African-American Christians should pick up the oldest witness of our faith, dive through the wealth of its practical and spiritual wisdom, and cut through our old boundaries and give new life to ourselves and all who are around us. I think more of us should become Orthodox Christians.
We have plenty of Christians and Churches who have brought into the idea of needing some sort of emotional or exiting release as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I am in no position to question anyone’s motives. But, the fact is that such outburst can be faked. People can be pressured to act like others around them. And what of those who don’t and choose not to praise as loudly and outwardly as others? Should they be looked upon as “not having the Spirit?” It may be that people are dropping out of church because they want a faith that will not judge them negatively for not “shouting” as a definition of worship (whatever happened to “Be still and know that I am God?). Those who feel and have come to believe the Christian journey need not be defined by such worship should be encouraged to explore the Orthodox Church.
In slave religion, our ancestors could not have simply waited until Sunday morning to “get their praise on” in order to make it through another week in the cotton and tobacco fields. They had to have practiced some sort of regular prayer, even under their breath so that the slave masters and overseers didn’t know what was going on. The worship in the “hush-harbors” could not have been too exuberant and loud all the time as this would have alerted the oppressors to what the slaves were doing. In Orthodoxy, every Christian is taught to develop an individual discipline or “rule” of prayer. Some choose to keep “The Hours,” others carve out time morning, noon, and night. All are encouraged to use the “Jesus Prayer” throughout the day. “Hit” Gospel songs come and go very frequently. Yet the practices of prayer in the Orthodox Church have proven timeless. This is a very good option for African-Americans (and everyone else as well).
Often, what we see before us is what we put our minds towards. There is no doubt as to why sexual and violent images are often used in the media these days; to sell products. And few will argue that these images have a negative effect on society. Orthodox iconography is known for its simple beauty and spiritual depth. These are not idols of worship. We honor those represented in the wood and paint for the godly lives they have led and the stories of the Gospels they highlight. If a pornographic image is imprinted in a man’s mind, he will look at women the wrong way. But, if a holy image of Jesus, Mary or another saint, or a biblical scene is imprinted in his mind, he is far more likely to think of the will of God. In a world that is full of negative imagery, Orthodox Christian icons are examples of something better.
There is a need for an alternative to every mainstream. Orthodox Christianity offers a deeply spiritual and undeniably historic home for those of us who are looking for something different. Come and see for yourself.
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